Venezuela was once rich


Stefan Rinke

To person

is Professor of History at the Latin America Institute and Friedrich Meinecke Institute at the Free University of Berlin. He researches and publishes, among other things, on the colonial history and independence of Latin America and, in particular, on the historical development of the region from a global historical perspective. [email protected]

In comparison to other Latin American countries, Venezuela has received an above-average amount of attention in the European media over the past few decades. With the assumption of office of the former putschist Hugo Chávez and the introduction of a new constitution in 1999, the Bolivarian Republic became for some a projection screen of utopias for a socialism of the 21st century and for others a relapse into real socialist times that were believed to have been overcome. If you want to understand the latest developments, you have to consider the history of the country, because the colonial past and the independence revolution of the early 19th century are elements that Chávez and his successor Nicolás Maduro referred to time and again when it came to this to legitimize one's own rule and to call on the heterogeneous population to cohesion. Venezuela shares a lot of historical experiences with the other states of the subcontinent, but over the centuries there have also been own developments that form the basis for the current situation in the country.

Autochthonous cultures and colonial times

In the area of ​​what is now Venezuela, different groups of people lived for thousands of years before the Europeans first reached the coast of the country in 1498. Wildlife hunters and gathering cultures specialized over time. The different language groups of the Arawak, the younger Caribs, the Chibcha in the west and the Tupí-Guaraní in the south developed. In the areas near the coast, fishing cultures remained important, some with stilt houses, which sailed the Caribbean Sea with their canoes and colonized the islands. Other groups went over to plant cultivation and settled mainly in the central zones of the country. Until the 16th century they perfected horticulture and agriculture with crops such as corn, beans, potatoes and cassava, which are also known elsewhere in Latin America. Still others adapted their way of life to the mountain or forest regions. Nomadic and sedentary cultures lived side by side, superimposed, or displaced each other in the area. In the later phase, two dominant cultures emerged with the Caribs and the Arawak groups that had been living in the region for some time. It was not a matter of uniform structures, but rather of clans rivaling and warring one another, whereby the ritual consumption of human flesh also played a role. The influences of the diverse autochthonous cultures were to play an important role in the daily life of the Venezuelans, their festivals, songs and beliefs from the colonial period to the present day. [1]

When Christopher Columbus discovered the coast of what is now Venezuela on his third voyage in 1498, he believed he was close to the Garden of Eden because he believed the Orinoco to be one of the paradisiacal rivers. A little later, Alonso de Ojeda followed in his footsteps and named the Venezuela region, Little Venice, as the stilt houses reminded him of the Italian city. In 1501 he received the title of governor and returned to enslave people and fish for pearls. However, the Spaniards met fierce resistance, which is why the conquest was slow. The Europeans justified the enslavement and the massacre with the myth of the man-eating Caribs, already circulated by Columbus. The mission by the Dominican Order was also intended to serve as legitimation, but it failed in view of the ongoing slave hunts. Wars and diseases brought in by the Europeans led to the depopulation of the once densely populated countries. Many indigenous groups withdrew to the hinterland, which was barely controlled by the Spanish. The pearl deposits were soon exhausted. Despite the myths of El Dorado and other fabulous riches, Venezuela sank to a periphery within the Spanish colonial possessions. The unsuccessful enterprise of the Augsburg Welser, who also traded with slaves, did not change anything from 1528 to 1556. [2]

Venezuela remained peripheral for a long time. The European colonization of the country took place from the coastal cities and dragged on for several centuries, because the vast savannas, the Llanos, in the south and the hinterland of the Orinoco in the east were only populated selectively. From the Andes to the coastal region to the vast hinterland, different identities were formed, which were also based on ethnic differences. Armed conflicts with indigenous groups and European rivals who smuggled or pirated on the barely secured coast and over the Orinoco remained formative. The people displaced from Africa represented a growing element of the population. They had to work on cocoa plantations, which, in addition to tobacco cultivation, were the basis for the country's first economic prosperity and whose owners, usually descendants of Spanish immigrants, dominated the urban upper classes. The city of Caracas, founded in 1567, rose to become the country's capital in the 17th and 18th centuries. Political and economic power was concentrated here, and from here trade connections were established to the other coastal cities, to the provinces in the hinterland and to Mexico, where cocoa was exported. [3]